Monday Matters (February 19, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 25:1-9

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you;
let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
2 Let none who look to you be put to shame;
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
3 Show me your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths.
4 Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.
5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,
for they are from everlasting.
6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
7 Gracious and upright is the Lord;
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
8 He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.
9 All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Remember me?

How often do you think about how you will be remembered?

A friend tells me about a fellow who leads his bible study. He begins with this prayer: “Good morning, God. This is Bob. Remember me?” It’s a far cry from Cranmer, and not the way I choose to approach the throne of the almighty creator of the universe. But Bob is on to something, the same thing that the author of the psalm read in church yesterday explores (see above).

The psalmist asks about what God will remember. When I run across this psalm, I’m struck by that concept that God in divine freedom has options about how we are remembered.

If, as we affirm in our tradition, God knows the secrets of our hearts, maybe knows us better than we know ourselves, it matters a great deal what God remembers about us. It’s unnerving for me to think that God has that kind of window into my soul with all its dark and unattractive corners.

We also affirm in our tradition that God regards us, warts and all, with grace and mercy, one of the great themes of the Lenten season. The psalmist appeals to that tradition, asking God to continue to regard us with compassion and love. The psalmist asks God not to focus on the goofy (or worse) things we did in our youth (or in our advanced age), but rather to regard us through the lens of unconditional love.

What difference does that make in our life?

It means we begin with belovedness. Our foundation is God’s mercy, a gift not to be taken for granted. For that, we offer thanks, with an attitude of gratitude that animates our worship. On the basis of that grace, our lives are meant to unfold in keeping with God’s covenant (Psalm 25:9).

It means that we are called to regard our neighbors and ourselves in a new, graceful light. Let’s start with ourselves. If God practices holy amnesia (a.k.a., mercy and forgiveness) towards things we’ve done wrong in the past, we can let those things go as well, hopefully learning from them, hopefully steering away from them in the future. It’s a matter for forgiving ourselves, sometimes hard to do. In fact, we sometimes shape our identity around the recollection of things we’ve done wrong.

Then as part of our expression of gratitude to God, we are called to holy remembering and holy forgetting towards those around us. We have the choice to spend our lives remembering bad things others have done to us, polishing resentments like trophies kept in a place of prominence and high visibility. Or we can regard each other with compassion and kindness, forgiving as we have been forgiven.

This week in Lent, enjoy your forgiveness (a tagline created for a local church, written by a friend who was a successful ad guy). As a Lenten discipline, think about how you might regard others with kindness, compassion, mercy, love and forgiveness. Consider what holy remembering means for you, as you look in the spiritual rear-view mirror to see how God has acted in your life.

But also consider holy forgetting, letting go of resentment, forgiving yourself and others, knowing that, as the psalmist says, God is full of compassion and mercy. As far as the east is from the west, so has God removed our sins from us (Psalm 103:8,12).

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (February 12, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 50:1-6

The Lord, the God of gods, has spoken;
he has called the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty,
God reveals himself in glory.
Our God will come and will not keep silence;
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
He calls the heavens and the earth
from above to witness the judgment of his people.
“Gather before me my loyal followers,
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice.”
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause;
for God himself is judge.

This is God speaking

The psalm assigned for worship yesterday (see above) begins with the rather amazing claim that the Lord, the God of gods, has spoken. What does that voice sound like? How does God speak to us? Have you had an experience where you heard the voice of God? If you admit that you have, might that make some folks consider you in need of psychiatric care?

A central tenet of our faith is that God reaches out to us way before we reach out to God. That kind of gracious revelatory action may well be our great hope. The mystery of the Holy One, the mystery of God’s transcendence only underscores the limits of our imagination. Said another way, the only way we’ll come to get inklings of God’s reality is if God makes that possible.

It can be risky business, claiming to hear God speaking to us. People often make that kind of claim to further their own agenda, to own God’s voice. Anne Lamott says that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. People have justified all kinds of messy behavior by claiming God spoke to them.

So think this morning about the ways God speaks, maybe more specifically about the ways God has spoken to you.

Yesterday’s psalm tells us that the heavens declare the rightness of God’s cause. We read in Psalm 19 (vv.1-4): The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world. All of which is to say that God speaks to us through the marvel of creation.

Yesterday’s psalm also says that God reveals himself out of Zion, which I take to mean that God is revealed through the faith community. It’s been my experience that folks of faith have at times revealed to me something of God’s presence, sometimes through a word spoken, sometimes through an act of compassion.

In church, we hear a reading from scripture punctuated by the phrase: The word of the Lord. That suggests that our engagement with scripture is a way God speaks to us. I confess that I sometimes hear a rough passage and am not sure how that is the word of God. That taps into our need to be discerning, perhaps using the criterion of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry: If it’s not about love it’s not about God. We see that love in Jesus, the word made flesh, who according to the gospel of John, chose to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.

Along those lines, Psalm 50 may well have been chosen for yesterday’s worship because of the gospel story always read on that Sunday before we begin the season of Lent. In yesterday’s story, Jesus on the mountaintop hears the voice of God speaking to him, declaring belovedness. As we enter the season of Lent, a season dedicated to spiritual growth, may we hear that voice speaking to us.

Here’s the challenge, maybe a good challenge to take on in the season of Lent: Are we listening for God’s voice? Or are we doing all the talking? Are we making up what we think God should be saying? This Lent, how might we carve out time for holy and faithful listening? How might we expect God to speak? To us?

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (February 5, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

1 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God!
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!
2 The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
4 He counts the number of the stars and
calls them all by their names.
5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
there is no limit to his wisdom.
6 The Lord lifts up the lowly,
but casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make music to our God upon the harp.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds
and prepares rain for the earth;
9 He makes grass to grow upon the mountains
and green plants to serve mankind.
10 He provides food for flocks and herds
and for the young ravens when they cry.
11 He is not impressed by the might of a horse;
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
12 But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who await his gracious favor.

A couple good questions

Early in my ministry, someone told me that there are two questions to ask of any gospel passage heard in church on Sunday. The first: Who is Jesus? The second: What does it mean to be one of his disciples? They are good questions for those standing in the pulpit and for those sitting in the pews. They keep us all on track, a special challenge for preachers.

More recently, I read that St. Francis of Assisi had his own version of those questions. He used to spend the whole night offering this prayer: Who are you, O God? And who am I?

The psalm offered in church yesterday (above) helps us think about the question: Who are you, God? I come away with the sense that God may be the ultimate multi-tasker.

On the one hand, we read that God is counting all the stars and giving them names. God is covering the heavens with clouds and preparing rain for the earth. God is covering the earth with plants, and while God is at it, God is rebuilding Jerusalem and gathering exiles, managing massive social change. God has a big job.

On the other hand, that same God is down to earth, healing brokenhearted, binding their wounds, lifting the lowly. As God does a big job, God is down in the weeds, with us.

It’s transcendence and immanence captured in one holy presence. Which is maybe one of the best answers to who Jesus is, the God of all creation, present with us in the most humble circumstances.

That leads to our second question: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Or in keeping with the prayer of St. Francis: Who am I, in light of what we learn about who God is?

The answer is captured in the way the psalm begins and ends, with the word: Hallelujah. That one word provides an answer to the question of our identity, the question of who we are. We are those who are called to praise, called to worship. It may be all we can do, for the mystery of the divine could make us stay up all night like St. Francis, wondering who God is and who we are.

That life of saying “hallelujah” shapes our identity. We are those who worship, not only with our lips but with our lives. We worship as we are ever mindful of the miracle of creation that surrounds us. We worship as we follow the commandment to love of God and neighbor. We worship in imitation of the Holy One, seeking to lift up the lowly, committing to a life of service. All of it is driven by our glimpses, by our inklings of the character of the Holy One.

As we live our lives, noting mysteries and miracles that surround us, we find our own identity by remembering that our lives unfold in the presence of God, whose quality is always to have mercy. (That’s why the confession begins with the words: Merciful God.)

Spend some time this week with St. Francis’ questions. Maybe make a Lenten commitment to ask the questions each morning. See what you learn about your own identity by exploring the mystery of God’s identity.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (January 29, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 111

1 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the deeds of the Lord!
They are studied by all who delight in them.
3 His work is full of majesty and splendor,
and his righteousness endures for ever.
4 He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
5 He gives food to those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works
in giving them the lands of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;
all his commandments are sure.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever,
because they are done in truth and equity.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

Courage in the face of fear(s)

Could the biblical writers please make up their minds? The portion of the psalm we read in church yesterday (see above) concludes with reference to the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom. We find variations on that statement in several places in scripture.

At the same time, one of the most common biblical lines when conversation begins between heavenly and human beings: Fear not. Don’t be afraid. Beyond that, there are scriptures that place fear and love in opposition. We read in the New Testament that perfect love casts out fear.

So which is it? It’s clear we’re faced with two different kinds of fear. It may well be that we harbor both.

On the one hand, there is the fear that sets itself in opposition to love. There’s plenty to be afraid of. We live in a world with devils filled that threaten to undo us, according to Martin Luther. The history of religion across many traditions has often been fear-based, calling us to compliance and conformity. Or else. We may imagine a God who waits for us to step out of line, eternal damnation resulting. Thanks be to God, a lot of that fear-based religion as motivator for religious practice has given way to the way of love.

At the same time, we’re encouraged to embrace the kind of fear that paves the way for wisdom, wisdom as something the world needs now, something there’s just too little of? (Thank you, Dionne Warwick.) This brand of fear has to do with a recognition of God’s greatness. It can be captured in the word “awesome,” a word which may have lost meaning as it is used to describe a cup of coffee or a movie or the latest fashion.

If you’ve ever been tempted (as I have) to imagine that God is lucky to have us on the team, the fear of the Lord opens the way for a better and wiser understanding of our own place in the universe. Scripture can assist us in that understanding, as the psalm du jour speaks of God’s greatness and majesty, as it reminds us of God’s faithfulness, God’s patience.

Maybe the question for us this Monday morning is this: What kind of fear is shaping our lives these days? What kind of fear will we choose to live by?

We may need to admit that in our complicated interior life, we harbor both kinds of fear at the same time. It will take courage to deal with that complexity. A meditation from Richard Rohr which I read last week cited this quote from James L. Farmer: “Courage, after all, is not being unafraid, but doing what needs to be done in spite of fear.” Rohr goes on to note the implication, which is that if you’re not scared, it’s not courage.

In our liturgy we ask for strength and courage. Courage in terms of bravery to recognize those things that make us fearful. Courage in the sense of love (the word courage has at its root the word for heart, as in the French coeur) as we recognize the truly awesome nature of amazing grace.

What kind of fear do you harbor this morning? Ask for grace to face fear with courage. Let that prayer open the pathway to the holy fear that can lead to greater wisdom.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (January 22, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 62:6-14

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.
In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge.
Put your trust in him always, O people, pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.
Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted.
On the scales they are lighter than a breath, all of them together.
Put no trust in extortion; in robbery take no empty pride; though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.
God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God.
Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

This year, Monday Matters will focus on wisdom conveyed in the treasures of the book of Psalms. We’ll look at the psalms read in church on the day before Monday Matters comes to your screen.

Trust

My parents divorced when I was a teenager. My mother then took on a role she neither wanted nor expected. She became a single parent of four siblings, which required some courage. Each member of our family navigated the changes as best we knew how. In retrospect, there are probably lots of things each one of us would have done differently, done better. But we were a bit at sea. Ground had definitely shifted.

Perhaps looking for resources to move forward herself, my mother expanded her role as spiritual leader in the family. She looked for ways to guide us faithfully through uncharted waters. One of the things she did was invite us (no, that’s not a strong enough word), she caused us to memorize the hymn text which begins:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.

She understood that each member of our family had experienced some shaking of the foundations. I thought of that hymn when I reflected on the psalm chosen for yesterday’s liturgies (see above). It suggests imagery that appears throughout the psalms, referring to God as rock, refuge, stronghold, firm foundation. I suspect each reader of this column has had some experience in which foundations were shaken, when sure footing seemed elusive. What was that experience for you? How did you find footing? Perhaps you’re in such a quicksandic moment this morning.

We don’t know the circumstances faced by the psalmist(s) who repeatedly refer to God as this solid footing, a shelter. But in each of these psalms, we hear a call to have trust. That need for trust has been part of the human experience ever since those psalms were written. In my moments of evening reflection, guided by meditations written by Howard Thurman, I recently came across this bit of wisdom about trust, about finding that holy support. Thurman wrote:

Teach me, O God, the simple lesson of trust. Bring into my sorely pressed spirit the sure confidence of birds floating in the sky with nothing to support them but the automatic trust of wings, or the sure confidence of fish that keeps them from drowning with nothing to save but the automatic use of their gills.

What can we learn from the birds of the air, or the fish of the sea? For that matter, what can we learn from the psalmist who claims that God is refuge and strength, that God is rock and salvation?

There are all kinds of reasons to think that such trust makes no sense, no more sense than the ability of a bird to soar. But that is the adventure of our faith. This week, carry with you the words of that familiar hymn. Here are a few more stanzas to take with you. Reflect on them. See if they apply to your life. (You’d make my mother happy, may she rest in peace.)

Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (January 15, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

1 Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4 You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

12 For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
13 I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14 My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.
15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.
16 How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them!
17 If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

This year, Monday Matters will focus on wisdom conveyed in the treasures of the book of Psalms. We’ll look at the psalms read in church on the day before Monday Matters comes to your screen.

Memorization: Try it, you’ll like it.

I left my job as an art director in a New York ad agency on a Friday. The next Monday morning, I showed up at Union Seminary to start the three year Masters of Divinity program. Slight career shift (though some snarky friends say I’m still in advertising.)

I was excited to show up on campus. As I walked the halls, I was struck with its history, sensing the presence of spiritual giants who had studied or taught there, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Raymond Brown, James Cone.

We had an orientation session, led by the Rev. James Forbes, who was teaching at the time at Union, and went on to become Senior Pastor at Riverside Church. I was impressed with the headiness of it all. So I was a bit surprised by the counsel given by Dr. Forbes, the advice he offered to help us navigate our course of study. He said: Memorize Psalm 139. It will change your life.

I grew up in a church that held memorization of bible verses in high regard. There was an almost magical way of thinking about the value of the practice. We would get points if we could recite verses in Sunday School. I developed an ability to locate the shortest verses in the Bible, for example, John 11:35: Jesus wept.

Fast forward to my matriculation at Union. I did not expect that coming to this high-falutin’ institution I’d be asked to memorize Bible verses. But I quickly came to admire Dr. Forbes, and so in that first year I memorized the first 17 verses. I don’t remember them all now, but whenever the psalm turns up in liturgy (as it did yesterday in church…see the portion of the psalm included above), I remember Dr. Forbes’ counsel. So think with me about why this psalm might be so important.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me. Psalm 139:1

For one thing, it reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves. It reminds me that my prayers are not a matter of clueing God in on what God does not already know. I’m coming to realize that perhaps the most powerful kind of prayer has to do with contemplation, with finding a way to sit in silence in the holy presence, trusting God knows the secrets of our hearts, that God knows what we need before we can even articulate those needs.

You are acquainted with all my ways. Psalm 139:2

It also reminds me that with such intimate knowledge of my inner thoughts, God is not put off. The great grace of our faith may be that God knows us and still loves us. In many human interactions, we sense that if people really knew who we were, they would have little to do with us. Not so with the Holy One. Which is probably what makes God holy. It’s what makes grace amazing.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is so high I cannot attain it. Psalm 139:5

Finally, the psalm reminds us that our lives unfold in the face of mysteries beyond our understanding. Speaking for myself, there’s no way I can wrap my mind around the mystery of God knowing us and loving us, knowing every person on every floor of every apartment in my neighborhood, in my city, in the world. That’s where faith comes in. Albert Einstein said that there were two ways to look at life. One, as if nothing is miracle. Two, as if everything is miracle. The journey of faith, which often involves a leap, asks us to trust that this divine knowledge is our reality.

So as the new year begins, maybe you want to memorize this psalm. Or perhaps pick just one verse to chew on. And see if Dr. Forbes was right. See if it changes your life.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (January 8, 2024)

3-1

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,[a]
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
    worship the Lord in holy splendor.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
    the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl[b]
    and strips the forest bare,
    and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
    May the Lord bless his people with peace!

This year, Monday Matters will focus on wisdom conveyed in the treasures of the book of Psalms. We’ll look at the psalms read in church on the day before Monday Matters comes to your screen.

Beauty

It goes without saying that as we begin a new year, there is much in our world that is not beautiful. We are confronted with images of rubble in Gaza, and all the pain implied in that destruction. The cruel violence by Hamas terrorists makes us want to look away. Wanton destruction in the Ukraine continues. More than 300,000 Russian mothers have lost soldier children. Closer to home, partisan political rhetoric heats up, with language that can only be described as ugly. On that cheery note, where do we look for beauty?

The psalm read in church yesterday (above) contains a refrain heard in other psalms. It calls on us to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. As I run across that phrase in this psalm and others, I often wonder if that is just denial at work. Is it a call to bury our heads in the sand?

Our worship, on a good day, strives for an experience of beauty. That comes in all styles of worship, architecture, language, music. All of it is intended to help us get a glimpse of the transcendent. In our life as a church, one of the things we strive for is beauty.

Newsflash: That doesn’t always happen in the church. Malcolm Muggeridge, a journalist from the last century and a late convert to Christianity, came to faith without rose-colored glasses. It was his opinion that organized religion can kill the beauty of God. (Thank goodness the Episcopalians aren’t all that organized.) I wonder if you’ve ever had that experience of the church.

Mother Teresa was well acquainted with the ugliness of the world, confronting day after day the poverty of Calcutta. She was asked by Malcolm Muggeridge how she could keep going amidst it all, the problems so enormous, her contributions so small. She replied that God had called her to be faithful, not successful. Again and again, she spoke of her vocation to do something beautiful for God (That phrase provided the title for Muggeridge’s book about Mother Teresa.) Her worship in the beauty of holiness did not need to take place in a stunning cathedral. It took place smack dab in the middle of the world’s ugliness, a beautiful expression of worship not only with her lips but with her life.

In the midst of exile, one of the ugliest phases of Israel’s history, the prophet Isaiah spoke of beauty: How beautiful are the feet of those who bear good news. (Isaiah 52.7, and echoed by St. Paul in Romans 10)

Here’s a thought as we begin a new year. Wherever we confront the ugliness of our world, whether in the news or on social media, or in our own resentful hearts, are there ways to notice beauty? And beyond that, are there ways that you and I can bring the beauty of God’s good news to those places where beauty is in short supply? Can we let the good news of grace, love offered without condition, forgiveness, healing that is ours in Jesus Christ, be shared? Can we keep an eye out for God’s beauty?

Notice the beauty today. It’s there to discover. Find it in your connection with church, perhaps. Whatever access you have to the beauty of creation, find it there. Find it in the people around you. I carry with me a sketch book. I often draw people on the subway, at an airport gate, in the park. (Sometimes risky business.) As I’ve done that over the years, I’ve come to see that there is beauty in every human being I draw, even those most disfigured, even those that fashion magazines would deem unattractive. See the beauty around you. Do something beautiful for God. Let that be your worship today.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (January 1, 2024)

3-1

A reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (61:10-62:3)

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my whole being shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn
    and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication
    and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a beautiful crown in the hand of the Lord
    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This year, during the season of Advent, and now in the season of Christmas, Monday Matters will focus on readings from the prophet Isaiah.

What’s in a name?

Isaiah spoke with deep joy about what had not yet happened. (See reading above, a reading which you may have heard in church yesterday on the first Sunday of the Christmas season.) Not a bad way to begin a new year. He says that righteousness and praise will spring up. He affirms impending vindication, visible for all the world to see. And then he says that his readers will be called by a new name, reflective of divinely given beauty.

The Bible is full of stories of people who get a new name to signify the transformation God brings to our lives. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul.

One of my favorite name changes in the Bible comes from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We read that a man named Joseph had his name changed to Barnabas. Barnabas means son of encouragement. The church found him to be such an encouraging presence that that they changed his name to reflect his gifts. Soon after that, he became traveling companion of St. Paul, who I suspect was not always easy to get along with. Barnabas was the guy for the job. Every time I read about his name change, I find myself wondering (with some nervousness) about how my community would change my name. What name would your community give you?

This business about getting a new name is really about stepping into a new identity, not destroying what we are or where we’ve been, but recognizing gifts and building on that, for the sake of the good news. The good news Isaiah anticipates is that God is preparing a new identity for God’s people. We can claim that possibility for ourselves. For those of us who are Jesus followers, in this ongoing Christmas season, that possibility has everything to do with Jesus showing up.

It’s not lost on me that while the reading from Isaiah turns up on the First Sunday of the Christmas season, today we also observe the Feast of the Holy Name, observed on January 1. Holy coincidence. (Happy new year, by the way. How are you doing on those resolutions?)

The Feast of the Holy Name is a day to celebrate the naming of the infant Jesus in the temple rituals of his culture. It’s worth noting what his name means. The name Jesus means God saves.

Throughout the New Testament, as early Christians took first steps as a movement, they were invited to call on the name of Jesus. In other words, they were making the claim, indeed betting their lives, on the promise that God would save. They were called to trust in the power of that name. We are still invited to call on that name, to claim that we are saved not by our good works or our good theology or our good liturgy or even our good taste. God is the one who saves. Jesus comes to make that happen. We are saved by the one whose name suggests grace.

To the extent that we can embrace that, our identity can be transformed. We might even come to feel that we have been given a new name, a new identity. And as we begin a new year, that gives cause to join with Isaiah in rejoicing and in hope. May this coming year be filled with the joy of experiencing God’s saving activity in your life.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (December 25, 2023)

3-1

A reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (9:2-7)

2The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied exultation;[b]
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders,
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Great will be his authority,[c]
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This year, during the season of Advent, Monday Matters will focus on readings from the prophet Isaiah, who provides great material for reflection in anticipation of Christmas.

Christmas Lights

Our Advent series, with prompts from the prophet Isaiah, spills over into the Christmas season (Merry Christmas, by the way) and continues on this holy day, the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. For your consideration, a reading from Isaiah which you may have heard in church on Christmas Eve, or perhaps a reading you’ll hear today in church. We’ve reprinted that reading above.

Those who selected readings for our worship chose this vision from Isaiah for this particular day. The reading is filled with Christmas sermon material, filled with insight into the character and mission of the Messiah. For our purposes this morning, join me in reflection on the first verses, with the image of a great light shining in a land of deep darkness.

How is it that the arrival of that baby Jesus represents light shining in a world where light seems to be in rare supply? The prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-18) states in this way: In him was life and the life was the light of the world. What might that light mean for you this Christmas? Let’s look at light.

Light shows us the way. Scripture is filled with stories of wilderness, people wandering aimlessly. We often do that in life. Think this Christmas morning about how Jesus shows you a way forward, what our Presiding Bishop calls the way of love.

Light reveals what is hidden, including those things that we might want to keep hidden. Jesus comes to show us, how shall we say, our growth opportunities. We don’t often see those things in ourselves (though we might see them clearly in others). Again, from John’s prologue, we read that the word made flesh came among us full of grace and truth. Both things.

Light shining can offer judgment, a clear-eyed view of the ways we fall short. Think this Christmas morning about how Jesus casts light on ways we need to grow.

Light dispels fear. I’ve been told that the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear. As we stumble around in clueless darkness, fears of what we can’t see can mount. Think this Christmas morning about how the perfect love of God expressed in Jesus’ presence among us can cast out fear.

Light allows us to see that we are not alone. When the light of Christ breaks into our dark night, we can see that we journey with others, and that God is present with us. Think this Christmas morning of the meaning of Immanuel, the name given to Jesus. It means God is with us. Give thanks that we are not left alone.

Light, like the sun breaking the horizon at dawn, represents the possibility of a new start. Each day we’re given that chance. Each new season in the church year gives us that chance. Each New Year’s celebration gives us that chance. Think this Christmas morning about the new thing God might do in your life in the days ahead, remembering that in our worship we recognize a God who makes all things new.

Finally, light brings with it a sense of joy. The psalmist put it this way: Weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning. This Christmas, if you happen to sing “Joy to the World”, reflect on how the arrival of the Christ child can lead you to a deeper experience of joy.

Blessings on this holy day. In all the celebrations, presents opened, feasts prepared, take a moment to reflect on the light of Christ in your life, with a spirit of thanksgiving and hope.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (December 18, 2023)

3-1

A reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (61:1-4, 8-11)

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

This year, during the season of Advent, Monday Matters will focus on readings from the prophet Isaiah, who provides great material for reflection in anticipation of Christmas.

Jesus’ Job Description. And Ours.

If it’s true that you get only one chance to make a first impression, what do you imagine was the impression Jesus made when he read from Isaiah 61? He did so at his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, a sermon which got mixed reviews, to put it mildly. You may have heard that same reading from Isaiah yesterday (a portion of which is above) on the Third Sunday of Advent.

As a good preacher, Jesus knew how to keep it short, so he didn’t read the whole passage, just the first verses, which he claimed had been fulfilled in his presence, his advent. In fact, as far as we know, the sum total of his sermon was the following: “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (You can read the whole story in Luke 4.) Would that current preachers (including this author) could model such succinctification.

As we prepare for the arrival of Christ (One week away, folks), in this last full week of the season of expectation called Advent, what kind of Messiah are we expecting? What are we looking for? What clues do we get from this Isaiah reading?

According to Isaiah, the expectation is for one who is anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, release to prisoners, comfort to those who mourn. That is what the Messiah will be about. That is what Christians believe Jesus is about. How does that square with your impressions of Jesus?

We can take that job description literally. In Jesus’ time, as in ours, there were plenty of people who were oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, prisoners. Many people were in mourning. Jesus’ ministry is filled with moments when he brings healing to those situations. And the question for us then becomes how we will continue that work as part of the Jesus movement, as part of the body of Christ.

Our baptismal promises call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. Pete Buttigieg, a faithful Episcopalian, gives us a place to start, as he speaks in a movie to be released in January, a movie called The Case for Love. It’s inspired by Presiding Bishop Curry’s focus on the way of love. Secretary Buttigieg notes his many encounters with people who disagree with him wholeheartedly and even treat him with disdain, not uncommon in our current political climate. He says in the movie that he is called to remember that God loves his opponents just as much as God loves him. Keeping that in mind is a good way to begin to fulfill this Isaiah reading.

I’m wondering specifically how we might live into Isaiah’s vision in this Christmas season. There are plenty of opportunities to strive for justice and peace in our broken world. There are great needs for healing. Who do you know who is feeling broken-hearted, who is gripped with grief? The holidays can be especially difficult for those who bear that burden, whether the loss is recent or happened a long time ago. Who do you know who is held captive, by resentment or a sense of injury, by addiction or compulsion, by hatred or fear? Meeting those needs is the work we are given to do as members of the body of Christ, as his hands and feet in the world.

As you ask God to show you ways to be a healing presence, reflect on the wisdom of Howard Thurman, who wrote a poem called The Work of Christmas. Here it is:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Let this poem guide you in the celebration of this season.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.